It's Western Monarch Day

Today is February 5, which according to Days of the Year is Western Monarch Day. A day to raise awareness about the beautiful creature that makes one of the most incredible migrations on Earth, and the alarming decline in its population (about 90% in the past 20 years).

At the same time, details are still emerging about the murders of two men who were passionate protectors of the overwintering site of millions of monarchs in central Mexico. Homero Gómez González was an environmental activist and manager of the El Rosario monarch sanctuary. Raúl Hernández Romero was an El Rosario tour guide. I encourage you to follow the link to learn more about them and their work.

So in observance of all these events, it seems appropriate to show and tell about two of my monarch artworks that have timely significance.

Faith’s End, 12″ x 16″, colored pencil on sanded paper

Faith’s End

Faith’s End was a moment in time that I actually saw at El Rosario reserve in Mexico, the same sanctuary with which the murdered men were associated. I may have met one or both of them when I visited in February 2011; I don’t know. As I followed the dusty trail to the site where enormous clusters of monarchs cling to oyamel firs, here and there was a monarch which had fallen to the ground while the temperature was too cold for it to fly. We were cautioned to watch our step. That’s hard to do when your attention is riveted to what’s going on overhead! And so, some did get squashed. And this was one of them.

It was an ironic and poignant sight. Someone who had made the long trip to see the monarchs had killed one in the process. I was immediately struck by the metaphors.

Metaphor 1: Just as this one monarch was killed by one human’s careless footstep, so millions have been killed by humanity’s use of insecticides and herbicides and aggressive clearing and mowing of land that used to grow milkweed and wildflowers.

Metaphor 2: This monarch flew thousands of miles to Mexico with the faith that it would survive the winter and fly north again in spring to mate and begin the cycle again, and instead was killed by carelessness; and I am losing faith that we will stop ourselves from annihilating the species.

If ever there was a scene which demanded me to make art, this was it.

It has had the desired effect. At first glance, viewers think simply “Oh, a pretty monarch butterfly.” Then they notice the footprint. Then they realize the monarch is dead, and was smashed. They can’t help but think about it. How did this happen? What is really going on here?

No Fate, 12″ x 16″, colored pencil on sanded paper

No Fate

This image came to me in a flash of inspiration. I didn’t know what it meant, only that I needed to put it to paper. I borrowed a rifle bullet from a friend; he had exactly the kind of bullet that was in my vision. I found just the right monarch reference with the right lighting from the thousands of photos I’ve taken at overwintering sites in Mexico and coastal California, as well as my own garden. I finished No Fate in only two days.

When I display No Fate and people ask what it means, I ask them to instead tell me what they think it means. I’ve been delighted at the variety of interpretations. Everything from “it’s about the contrast between something delicate and alive and something rigid and dead” to “it’s about gun control” to “it’s about hope for an end to wars”.

My own idea about what it means changes from week to week, month to month. And I’m fine with that. If art is supposed to make one stop and think, and everyone brings their own evolving experiences and opinions to it, why wouldn’t its meaning change over time?

Today, February 5, Western Monarch Day, I was struck by how fitting it is in connection with the murders of the two men at El Rosario, although they were not shot. Today it has this meaning: It represents the death of two soldiers in the war against the illegal logging that threatens the monarchs’ preservation. The monarch gently lands like an angel’s kiss, ending the violence they suffered in the last minutes of their lives. Their fate does not have to mean the end of the sanctuary and the monarchs, if enough supporters stand up for the cause.

If you’d like to support the cause, you can help by planting milkweed seeds and nectar-producing wildflowers, and by donating to the Xerces Society, which raises awareness at a grand scale for communities, corporations, states, and government, does research studies, and supports milkweed and habitat efforts.

A Positive Ending

This has been a more somber and even maudlin post than I usually write! So I’ll end on a brighter note with a happier monarch piece.

Monarch #11, 5″ x 7″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

This lovely lady was laying eggs on a milkweed in my own garden last summer, and I was fortunate to get a head-on closeup of her as she was unfurling her proboscis to sip nectar from a blossom that was just out of sight. There’s no “message” here, just an individual monarch portrait.

Happy Western Monarch Day!

Real art instruction for kids

I recently spoke to a family friend I hadn’t seen in over a year. She couldn’t wait to show me this photo of her three granddaughters!

Young students, ages 12, 14, and 7, with their drawings of the apple from my book 101 Textures in Colored Pencil.

She explained that one day when they were visiting, they got bored, so she got out paper, colored pencils, and her copy of my 101 Textures in Colored Pencil book, and said, “Let’s pick something to draw.” They chose the apple (texture #67 in the book). Each girl drew her own freehand (!) outline and followed the instructions for the four steps. And just LOOK at those results! They were thrilled, she was thrilled, I was thrilled. Who would’ve expected them to turn out so well? None of us!

This got us to talking about how badly adults underestimate the learning/understanding capacity and abilities of children, especially when it comes to art skills. We adults have the idea that crayons/markers, coloring books, finger paints, paste, scissors, paper plates, and construction paper are all a kid needs right up until high school. Just let them putter around, maybe give them a theme and turn them loose on a rudimentary project, without any real instruction on techniques, because what can a kid do anyway?

And that’s precisely where we fail them. We think that because we didn’t do much in art classes as children, there’s not much to be done. It becomes a generational cycle of low expectations and low results.

In reality, with gentle coaching, demonstrations, and proper materials, children can sponge up information and technique at least as quickly as adults can, if not faster. Think about how young boys and girls are when they start learning skills to be gymnasts and dancers: 4-6 years old. By the time they’re 15, they can be Olympians. Why don’t we realize this is true for art skills, too?

These girls are living proof. They aren’t art prodigies, yet look what they did with a few pencils and a few simple instructions!

If you have a copy of 101 Textures in Colored Pencil, show me your children’s or grandchildren’s rendition of the apple! If you don’t have a copy, you can get it from Amazon, or if you buy it directly from me I’ll sign it.

What a week!

When it rains, it pours! All of the following has come to pass in just a week, whew.

Sunset

Sunset Sky

UART Sanded Pastel Paper published an article on their website that I wrote for them, about how I work with colored pencil on their paper. I was happy to write the demo article for them, since I love their sanded paper (and they compensated me with a package of it). I shared the link all over the place, the Colored Pencil Society of America shared it on their Facebook page, and the UK Coloured Pencil Society asked to print the article in the next issue of their journal, Talking Point.

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No Fate

My No Fate was accepted into the PaperWest National Works on Paper Juried Exhibition. This will be at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, October 7 – November 1.

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Happy

My Happy was accepted into this year’s UArt Open. (There’s no connection to UART Paper; the name similarity is coincidental.) It’s an all-media competition sponsored by University Art, a northern California art supply store chain. The juror selects only 50 pieces out of all the entries, no matter how many there are. Last year I was fortunate to win 1st Place in Drawing! We’ll see what happens this year–different juror, different entries, so you never know. The show will be on display October 19 – November 3, at the University Art store in Redwood City.

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My California Poppy Quartet (not to be confused with my Quintet) arrived in Clifton, TX for the 34th Annual Bosque Art Classic. This is a great show, with high standards, several cash awards, and frequent sales. Clifton is a small town with outstanding support for the arts, thanks to the foresight of some wealthy patrons. The show will run September 15 – 28.

CherryStudy

Cherry Study

The arrangement of my next workshop was settled. Registration is through the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto, CA; the workshop will be Saturday, November 2, 12 – 4 PM, at The Foster in Palo Alto, CA. I’ll be teaching my half day “Vibrant Realism with Colored Pencil”. Click here to register!

Finally, I gave my presentation “Colored Pencil as a Fine Art Medium” to 28 members and guests of the Campbell Artists Guild, and not only did several of them come up to me afterward to tell me they had no idea colored pencil was so versatile, but the club president emailed me later and said “What a wonderful presentation you made on all things colored pencil! The Guild members were very excited to learn all that you had to offer them. I’m sure we’ll see more art created in colored pencil in the coming months for our competitions. Thank you for such a comprehensive and detailed presentation.”

I have more events coming up that I’m tracking, but this is just one week’s worth of activity. No wonder I haven’t made any progress at all on my latest drawing!

IKEA for the win

I don’t know about the artists in other media, but in the colored pencil world, word spreads fast when a new product comes out, or someone discovers an existing product is great. In this case, my fellow artist Wendy Layne shared a photo on a colored pencil group on Facebook of a set of drawers she’d found at IKEA to hold all her pads of drawing paper.

I have three flat-file cabinets holding all my drawing papers–both full sheets and pads–but I’ve never liked the pads taking up space that was made specifically for holding full sheets. I’ve occasionally poked around on Wayfair and the online art supply stores for something appropriate for the pads, with no luck. I hadn’t even thought of IKEA. So I decided to investigate.

I live only a few miles from the IKEA in East Palo Alto, CA. So I visited on my way home from work one day. And there it was in the office furniture section!

I borrowed a tape measure and discovered that alas, the drawers weren’t quite large enough on the inside to hold 18″ x 24″ pads, but all others would fit, and almost all of my pads are smaller anyway. Sold!

Well it’s not quite that simple… If you’re unfamiliar with IKEA: you walk through the store, which is HUGE, and when you find an item you want, you note from its display card which aisle and bin it’s on in the warehouse. Then you walk and walk, and when you finally get to the warehouse, you get one of the big carts from the cart-dispensing machine

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and go to that aisle and bin to get it.

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You’ll probably need help, because whatever you bought is in pieces that are very efficiently packaged in as small a box as possible, so it’s very heavy. Then you go home and you need help again to get the box out of the car. And finally, you follow the assembly instructions, which are *only* pictures, no words (to avoid translation and excess paper usage issues).

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Despite jokes you’ve probably heard about IKEA’s assembly illustrations, I think they do a pretty darn good job with them. Maybe because I’m a visually-oriented person anyway, and can visualize spatial relationships. There were no missing pieces, and all the parts fit together perfectly–no misaligned holes or crooked edges at all. The only tools required were two screwdrivers and a small hammer.

Now I, too, have a set of drawers that holds all my pads of paper! My big flat-file cabinets once again have free drawers for large sheets. Thanks for the tip, Wendy!

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Evolution of “Tree of Witness”

The Inspiration

Three years ago, my husband, my father and I had occasion to visit New York City for a few days, and during a walk through Central Park, a particular tree caught my attention. I walked around and around it for several minutes, marveling at all its textures, colors, shapes, and hollows. I have no idea what species it was, because it was so deformed by its hard life. I took several photos of it from all sides, because I knew I had to draw it someday.

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My inspiration: a tree in Central Park, NYC

Fast forward to February 2019. The upcoming March 31 entry deadline for the CPSA International Exhibition motivated me to finally tackle this tree. To be worthy of inclusion in the highly-competitive show, I need to create something that is both technically challenging and has something to say. And this tree has a lot to say. It took several days for me to decide which of my photos to use for reference, because the tree has no “quiet side”. There was sooooo much detail, and I wanted to include it all!

Here’s how I approached this project, and how I solved a significant problem with it.

The Problem

Normally, I complete the background of a drawing first, because it establishes the environment that affects the colors and values in the subject. But I had a big problem: I  didn’t like the background in any of my reference photos; it drained the drama out of the tree. It had to go. But I had no ideas for a worthy replacement, and I needed to get started. I figured I could ponder the background, sift through my photo library, and come up with an idea by the time the tree itself was finished. So I moved ahead with the tree.

Drawing the Tree

Once I established very basic outlines on my 15″ x 20″ sheet of Stonehenge paper, my first step was to place the absolute darkest dark areas. They became my landmarks to prevent getting lost as I worked. Then I lightly blocked in the overall base tree colors with Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle watercolor pencils and water. This would also help prevent getting lost, and reduce the appearance of speckles of paper peeking through pigment later.

Lacking the background, I used value finders (small holes punched in cards, to isolate corresponding spots of color in reference and drawing) to ensure my values were on target. It was divide and conquer, one section at a time.

I developed the bottom and right sides first because I could reach them easily, then flipped the whole drawing and my reference photo upside down to develop the top and left. This way, I didn’t have to reach far up my drawing table or reach across pristine paper or finished areas to risk scuffing or smudging them. If you’ve never flipped a drawing upside down to work on it, you might think that would make it much harder to get right. But drawing is all about seeing shapes, colors, and textures rather than relying on the shorthand symbols your brain creates for familiar objects, so it works well!

The tree’s huge number of textures, directions, colors, shapes and hollows were  challenging. I soon realized the tree had even more to say since I was “listening” intently. Its title came to me: “Tree of Witness”. A lifetime of witnessing the best and worst of human behavior alters people, so might it also alter a tree? While standing for decades in New York’s Central Park, I’m sure this tree has witnessed a great deal. It wears all that it has lived through.

The Sky Problem Solved

After about 60 hours’ work across 4 weeks, the tree itself was finished. I could no longer postpone a decision about the background. The last thing I wanted was to ruin the work with a lame background! I spent several hours using Photoshop to experiment on my reference photo with half a dozen skies, then slept on it overnight. In the morning, the choice was clear: a sky that evokes a past or pending turmoil as well as some hope, yet doesn’t speak louder than the tree.

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The perfect sky for the job

The sky covers less area than the tree, yet seemed to take as long to create, because creating a very smooth texture with multiple layers and soft transitions of color is time-consuming. Once the sky was complete, my personal observations of late-evening ambient light informed me how to adjust the colors of the grassy field and path and create a transition at the horizon to make it all work harmoniously together.

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The final result: “Tree of Witness”, 15″ x 20″, Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast pencils on Stonehenge paper, my own photo references.

The Pencils Used

I used only Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast pencils, because they are both professional-quality lightfast pencils and I wanted to see how well they work together (the answer to that is: great!)

It’s funny, there are certain colors in any set which, when you first look at them and make a swatch, you think “When would I ever use this odd color?” And then one day you discover that that “odd” color is perfect for here…and here…and here…and just all over the place, and you end up using it more than any of the more basic colors. For this project, those colors turned out to be Luminance “Violet Gray” and Lightfast “Olive Earth”. Violet Gray was important in both the tree and the sky. Olive Earth was important in both the tree and the grass.

All together, besides the initial washes of Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, I used 34 colors in “Tree of Witness”: 28 Luminance and 6 Lightfast. Fully 20 of those colors were used for the tree itself!

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What’s Next?

It’s framed under Optium acrylic with a dark neutral mat and simple wood frame, and hanging on my wall, where I’m enjoying it every day. It has been shared on social media. In another month, I’ll know whether it is accepted into this year’s CPSA International Exhibition. Whether or not it ever appears in any show or wins any award, I’m pretty happy with “Tree of Witness”. I’ve given that Central Park tree a voice for its story.

Update 4/30/19: “Tree of Witness” has been juried into the CPSA International Exhibition!

Update 6/1/19: After a lot of googling and questions, I finally found out the species of the tree: osage orange.

Update 8/2/19: “Tree of Witness” has won an $800 Award for Outstanding Achievement in the CPSA International Exhibition! This is my third award in the International Exhibitions, and all three have been for drawings of special trees. I think I’m onto something. 🙂

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The quest for a Luminance pencil extender

It’s such a simple thing. When a pencil becomes too short to hold comfortably, you don’t want to have to hold it with a claw hand; you want something to make it longer so you can use it up completely. Colored pencils aren’t cheap, so the more length you can use up before it can’t fit in any sharpener anymore, the better.

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That’s why pencil extenders were invented. They snugly fit most standard-diameter pencils, and for extra security have either a retaining ring or a screw-on retainer. I’ve amassed quite a variety over time, since the more pencils I use, the more extenders I need. Here are some of my collection:

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The problem is, not all pencil brands are “standard” diameter, which is about 7 mm.

Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Coloursoft pencils are a full 8 mm, and no amount of force will make them fit in standard extenders. What to do?

Caran d’Ache used to make a pencil holder to fit, but it’s no longer available. It looked like this:

carandachepencilholder

Derwent sells a pair of extenders, one standard 7 mm, one larger 8 mm one specifically for their Coloursoft pencils. Indeed, the larger one fits Luminance pencils, too! But it’s not available on its own (I asked Derwent), only in the set which retails for a whopping $13.69, and I don’t need any more standard extenders. It’s not practical to continually swap several short pencils around on one or two extenders as I work; each short pencil needs its own extender.

derwentextenders

I combed the internet, and found multiple extenders that claimed to fit “up to 8 mm”, bought them, and had to return them all–they didn’t fit.

I posed the question to a group of colored pencil artists.  Some of the suggestions offered, in use by others but no good for me:

  • Super-glue two pencils end-to-end.
    Nope–this would require chopping off the tops. A single Caran d’Ache Luminance pencil is over $4.00, so I’m unwilling to chop anything from its length.
  • Sandpaper the top end’s circumference until it fits in a standard extender.
    Nope–very laborious for every pencil (they’re all made from red cedar), messy, and I’d lose the important color information that’s stamped and painted there.
  • Use a plastic milkshake straw.
    Nope–it’s flimsy and has no heft, and the pencil can easily retreat inside the straw.

Someone mentioned a generic made-in-China extender that fits Luminance, available in packages of five on Amazon, so I ordered them. Well, they sort of fit, very tightly…but not with the screw-on retainers. I’ll keep these extenders and toss the retainers in a drawer, but I’ll have to wrap some tape around the exposed retainer threads to protect my hand.

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That’s as far as the silver retainer would go. It’s supposed to slide down the pencil barrel and screw onto the extender.

Finally, fellow artist Katrina Benson offered an ingenious DIY solution. I don’t normally do DIY projects, because they usually require a bunch of time-consuming steps, materials for which I have no other use, and a glue gun (which I don’t own). However, Katrina’s solution required only three things: cardboard bee tubes, wood dowel pins, and Elmer’s glue. Easy and quick! I ordered up the supplies:  5/16″ (interior diameter) large bee tubes for native mason bees, and 8 mm dowel pins. The bee tubes came in a pack of 36 for $10.95 + shipping, the dowel pins in a pack of 75 for $6.50 and shipped free via Amazon Prime. Each bee tube is 6″ long, so it can be cut in half, so these supplies are enough to make 72 extenders for under $23!

 

When they arrived, I quickly assembled half a dozen: I squirted a bit of glue on a dowel and slid it into a tube until it was recessed about 1/2″ inside. That’s it! After it dried overnight, I tried it on a Luminance. It fit perfectly!

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This bee-tube extender hasn’t been cut in half–it was a proof of concept.

I’m so pleased with this solution, I think Katrina ought to get some kind of award for it. It’s cheap and easy to make, sturdy, reusable, leaves the pencil intact, and allows sharpening all the way down to a tiny nub.

Now that’s a big print!

Have you ever been in some corporate office, hotel lobby, or hospital, and noticed big prints of colorful artwork on the walls? Did you ever wonder who made them, who selected them, and how the artists got noticed? I have, many times, and I never had any inkling of how to find out. I fantasized that that could be my artwork on the walls someday, subconsciously brightening the day of passers-by. Except that all of my artwork is much smaller than any of these installations ever are, so it was unlikely to happen.

Fast forward to three months ago. Out of the blue, I received an email from an art consultancy in Austin, TX. I wasn’t even sure what an “art consultancy” was; I had to look it up. It’s a company whose entire business is contracting with corporations, hotels, hospitals, etc. to find suitable artwork for their walls, lobbies, and courtyards. It’s the consultancy’s job to determine what’s appropriate given a client’s culture and a given location in the client’s building, then go find something that fits the bill, and either buy it or get permission to reproduce it, frame it, ship it there, and install it perfectly.

Anyway, here I was: an art consultancy contacted me. They’d found my website. They offered a fee for permission to make one large print of my California Poppy Quintet, for an unnamed client. How large? About 50″ wide. Whoa! The original drawing is only 9.25″ x 16.25″! I momentarily cringed at the thought that my little drawing might look bad when scaled up that much, and the opportunity would be lost. But I checked my full-resolution digital scan file, and it is 600 dpi (dots per inch), which is higher than I usually scan. Some quick calculation:

600 dpi * 16.25 inches = 9750
9750 / 50 in = 195 dpi

Yay! There was resolution to spare! I spent some time in Photoshop making sure there were absolutely no microscopic specks of dust or pigment that would become clods at that huge size.

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Then I had an idea:  in lieu of a fee, wouldn’t it be cool to have them make me a duplicate, same size, same treatment? They readily agreed, so I signed the release and gave them the image file.

A few weeks later as the installation time approached, we arranged a time and place for me to pick up my big print. At this point I learned who the client was: the brand-new Google campus in Sunnyale!

I have to digress here to try to describe why the Google location made it a very big deal for me. I’ve been a software engineer for my entire career. I’ve been a software engineer in the San Francisco bay area (Google’s home) about as long as Google has existed. Google has a reputation for being very difficult to get into; they hire a lot of Ivy Leaguers and PhDs and entrepreneurs and genius-level computer scientists who are determined to change the world. Just getting invited for an on-site interview there is a small triumph. I’ve managed that feat twice, but didn’t get an offer. I’m okay with that; I’ve made my long-term mark at other companies. But now, it’s my artwork that finally earned a permanent spot inside Google! The irony!

What a thrill it was to see its installation in a brand new building a few days before it opened. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos of it in situ, in a prominent spot next to a lounge and elevators. I learned that the consultancy installed around 700 artworks in the four multistory buildings in less than a week. They had spreadsheets and radios to keep track of what went where, how it was to be installed, who installed it, who verified it, etc.

Now I have a giant framed print of my fabulous California Poppy Quintet, and I don’t have a wall big enough on which to hang it! Not a bad first-world problem to have.

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50″ print, framed to 60″. The frame is still protected in plastic and cardboard; it’s actually a brushed silver color.

Update 1/18/19: I got to visit the Google print on-site!

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